The Death Penalty is My Biggest Spiritual Struggle

A lethal injection chamber. Photo credit: 2009 T Woodard/flickr. Usage does not represent endorsement by the photographer.

“An eye for an eye.” It is one of the earliest forms of justice we know of.  You hurt someone? You, in turn, get hurt back. A kill for a kill.  It seems fair, right? But then Jesus makes his entrance into this world. We no longer have to pay for our sins with our own lives.  Now the “He who is without sin, cast the first stone” line of thinking comes into play.  Forgiveness enters our world and with that I find myself engulfed in the biggest intellectual struggle.

As Christians, are we to be for or against the death penalty? Here is where my battle begins.

I believe in grace. Any of you who have read this blog have read my beliefs on this subject ad nauseum.  I believe every human being is worthy of God’s forgiveness.  Jesus died for everyone - not just the select few.  His blood covers every single sin. The Bible plainly states all of this.

Frequently I ask myself, what gives us the right to play judge and juror with someone’s life?  Jesus makes it pretty clear to all of us in the New Testament; “judge not lest you be judged” and since it was him up there on that cross dying for those sins I believe he gets the final say.  In the end I know that God is the only judge.

At least I know those things in my head.  However, my heart – well my heart has its own way of thinking.

I think capital punishment works great. Every killer you kill never kills again.”  -Bill Mayer

I came from a very pro death penalty household.  If you made the choice to forever negatively change someone’s life – you should die.  It seemed completely fair.  I felt proud that we were for ridding this world of scumbags and was completely shocked when I heard that people were actually against killing such horrific losers.

I remember, vividly, sitting in my Grandpa’s den watching Ted Bundy’s last interview with Dr. James Dobson, prior to his execution.  I can almost recall the anticipation and excitement we felt then knowing that this murderer was going to get what he deserved.  The families of the ones he killed would finally get some justice.

I remember having a teacher at my private school confess to the class that he was angry at the idea that Ted Bundy would be sharing Heaven with us because he asked for forgiveness before he died.  At the time of this teacher’s confession, I could feel in my heart that I was angry too.  God should not forgive him.  Bundy’s sin felt unforgivable - and I began to wonder if Mr. Bundy would really share Heaven with us.  Certainly that was false.  Grace could not be for him too.

That was until I truly met Jesus and truly learned about his grace.  Not just on a Sunday school flannel board, but really experienced it for myself, in my own life.  I found out that grace is real, for every sin.  That if it is only for a select few then who gets to be that judge?  Grace has to be for everyone, for everything – or else it really is not grace.

There is no “but” when talking about grace, that’s how magnificent of a force it is.” -Max Dubinsky

Yet there is a “but” for me.  And this is a big but: where in the hell is the justice here on earth?

I realize that God states very plainly “vengeance is mine” but how far does that really take us when the unthinkable happens?

What about the little girl who has her innocence stolen over and over again by a man who deems it appropriate? God forbid, but what if that is your little girl?  How do we give her justice?  How do you explain the fact that her life will never be the same again?  Does telling her that Jesus loves and forgives the man help her at all?  What if you try to comfort her nightmares and screaming cries with stories of grace?

I know that is what we are supposed to do – but I don’t want to.  I want to look into her precious little eyes, the ones that are begging for answers, and tell her that this man will be punished.  That this man will be killed so that he can NEVER hurt her again.  I want to tell her, further, that this man will burn forever in hell.  That what he did to her was so terrible even Jesus can’t love him.

But I can’t.  Because there is grace and because of grace there is forgiveness.

Truthfully, there is a part of me that hates that.

What about the cold blooded murderer who kills just to get their fix?  What if the one who happens to provide that fix happens to be your husband or your wife?  What if you are left here to grieve and try to hold on when your loved one is ripped out of your life by someone else’s negative choice?

If that was my husband, my best friend, I would want that person to be killed in the worst possible way.  I would throw grace out the window.  Forgiveness?  Yeah, right.  My hurt and anger would swallow me up.  I’d be in that court room.  I’d chant for them to be killed.

Which I guess means I’m also for the death penalty.

Here is the rub.  I don’t want to be for the death penalty.  In my head I know it is wrong.  I know that it is not the solution. Yet I can’t figure out a way to get my heart and my head to come to any sort of agreement on this one and it pains me so greatly.  So I’m asking for your help.

How have you found answers?  Are you for or against capital punishment?  If you are pro capital punishment and you are a Christian, how do you reason out grace?  If you are against this, how does one get justice?

I’m hoping that some of your comments can help me find peace in this battle.


27 thoughts on “The Death Penalty is My Biggest Spiritual Struggle

  1. My plan is to never kill anyone so that I never get the death penalty myself. But listen, I don’t think grace means not having to own up to the things we’ve done. There’s an element of justice that all of us grace people like to avoid.

    • Karen this is another wise comment from you. Thank you. I believe you are completely correct. Justice is not warm and/or fuzzy – so we don’t talk about it much. However, never does God say that we are exempt from it.
      This is great food for thought for me.

      • , the implication of your claim is that most Christian Nigerians are not in faovur of the death penalty. In general terms, I would say you are wrong. In fact, most societies the world over are in general in faovur of the death penalty (it has always been the popular choice in the UK for instance). Its close to being a fact about we humans: the retributive instinct to kill those who have killed seems to be wired into our dna, sadly, commandments or no commandments.

  2. i really see where you are coming from, im most ways i agree.

    i draw my opinion from romans 12 and 13.

    In Romans 12, Paul says that as individuals we should be honourable in the sight of everyone. That looks like ‘Never pay back evil for evil to ANYONE’ (Romans 12:17). Thats pretty black and white im my opinion.

    He even goes on to say that we should be completely counter culture and love our enemies (which is what Jesus said) ‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, Give them something to drink, and they will be ashamed of what they have done to you.’

    This for me is hugely difficult, because if someone decided to mug my best friend i would definitely fight to protect my friend. In my head that looks right, because i am protecting my friend that feels like the righteous thing to do. But something doesn’t sit right with that either. i feel like there is a deep contradiction somewhere there. However, what a mugger is doing, isn’t okay, so i see no condemnation in protecting friends and family.

    Regarding the death penalty. Romans 13 goes to talk about honouring/respecting authority. He talks about authority being ordained by the LORD. He has put them in Power. So in my head, i dont have to enjoy what the government does, but we must respect it.

    Jesus loves justice. So i think you are more than right to be an individual and be weighted either way. its important to understand both peoples side of the argument.

    So often these (what seem to be) contradicting things turn up. I dont think your heart for Justice and your heart for mercy contradict each other in any way at all. I dont know exactly how they fit together in this context. Both are equally valuable and just because God loves Justice and Mercy.

    So to summarise a load of waffle: We should honour the authorities, so i dont think they are wrong for the death penalty. Jesus calls us to be super counter culture, so love mercy to new levels. Its okay to not understand how it all fits, but Justice and Mercy are MASSIVE parts of Gods personality, so if anything it gives us a healthy insight into how the LORD feels in these situations, battling to satisfy His Justice and be Merciful at the same time.

    I didnt really say many conclusive things there…
    but thats what fell out when i opened the tap into my head.

    Keep blogging,
    Be Blessed.


    • Luc I love the tap into your head. :) This was such a great comment. I love that you brought up something that I’ve never thought of before; that perhaps, this does not have to be a battle for me. Perhaps I can embrace both sides of this battle and have them fit together.
      Maybe the grace keeps me fair but in the end sometimes justice must prevail.
      Thank you. I don’t know if I have ever seen a comment from you but I hope to see more. Your thought process is great.

  3. I oppose the death penalty; first on some practical levels; doesn’t deter crime, costly, and in our country many many discrepancies between the way it’s applied to people of color and the poor and increasingly the sheer number of people on death row that have been proved to be innocent. As a Christian I oppose the death penalty as I do not believe we are to kill people. Death puts people beyond redemption, doesn’t value the sanctity of life and frankly to have the death penalty someone has to do the killing which makes them a murderer and us as well since we continue to allow this. “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone”. As far as justice…killing someone won’t correct the harm that they have done and mostly doesn’t bring families of victims the resolution they are looking for. As Sr Helen Prejean says “people are more than the worst thing they have done”

    • I have to disagree with your comment, it deters criminals from continuing in their sins. It allows those men who were unfortunate enough not to know christ and who disobeyed his commands to get the punishment God has set up for them. If a man dies is it not Gods will for such a thing to happen. If God wants you to die you die if He wants you to live you live. It is simple in concept yet deep in understanding. “Thou shalt not kill” in a literal translation means don’t murder. But the bible also says if a man sheds mans blood by man shall his blood be shed. Although it is not a good thing for human life to be taken in any circumstance there are points of no redemption. Grace does allow for us to be saved and yes He died for us all but that is only if we choose to follow Him. In scripture it reads in multiple places for whole cities and or races to be wiped from the face of the planet. God commanded it which justifies loss of human life, yes murder is bad but the death penalty as I see it and as I read in scripture is meant as a defence of others in future. “He who is without sin let him throw the first stone.” I will say that this was meant for cases of which the life may be saved. God forgave that woman and she continued in that sin no longer but it was meant for her. It was not set as a commandment thus using that as an argument is null. One perfect life may be traded for one that is not perfect so that they may live. God did that for us but if we do not choose to take the trade and accept him and apologize we are the ones responsible and accountable for our sins. I am sorry for the innocent ones on death row who were unjustly accused and accordingly punished but that should not change our minds about the death penalty. That was human error and I do pray for them that they accepted God before they died. It is actually less costly to put an inmate to death than it is to keep them alive for the rest of their life. $130 million to kill them $230 to keep them alive, please check that you are correct before you post. I feel as though I need to apologize for being blunt but I am allergic to bad theology mixed with bad facts. I am at this point being rude and need to stop typing. I am sorry but please take my words into consideration. -Sam contact me personally at if you feel the need to talk more.

  4. Will you won’t have to worry about it on Washington since the Gary Ridgeway deal. His case set a precedent because after the 60 our so women he killed he didn’t get the death penalty. I have mixed thoughts on the subject-different than from the standpoint of grace- and it has to do with our society and what it values first. We are one of the very few democratic nations to still have a death penalty. We have so many social issues at this point the death penalty should be the last focus in society.

    And PS. If everyone gets to heaven by gods grace then where does the big scary hell come in?

  5. I am a Christian and I am pro death penalty but I too wrestle with grace and justice. I find I agree with a lot of Luc’s points above. I look at it like this, the death penalty is the “law of the land” (depending on where you live) and if you commit a crime that makes you eligible for the death penalty that is the consequence you face. I also believe God offers forgiveness to all who will accept Jesus and His sacrifice. However God’s forgiveness does not cancel out the consequences for our sin in this world. When Jesus was hanging on the cross and the criminal next to Him professed belief in Him as the Messiah he didn’t say “Your sins are forgiven. Jump on down from that cross and go about your life.” He said “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus chose not to undermine the Romans and their laws even though they were harsh and very likely not fair at all (as He had a reason to know), He did however offer God’s forgiveness and a place in heaven.

    I also think there is a difference between the governing authority exercising capital punishment and revenge. If capital punishment is the law of the land I don’t see that as revenge or vengence. If you as a spouse, parent, sibling or friend of a victim decide to take matters into your own hands and punish the offender by taking his (or her) life claiming “an eye for an eye” then I think you are in the wrong. Those are the situations I think of when applying “vengence is mine says the Lord.”

    • Laurel this comment is filled with so much wisdom. It is comments like this one that make me so glad that I put up this post. You are right. He didn’t say get off the cross and go about your life. That is for sure something to think about.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  6. Ooh! This is one of my favorite things to debate. But I’ll keep it toned down. (-; I too was pro-death penalty for the longest time…until I actually did research on it. I am anti-death penalty for first, all the reasons Robin Vestal pointed out. It is a completely inconsistent punishment. Case in point, Gary Ridgway one of the most prolific serial killers we’ve known gets to live out his life. Jeffery Dahmer wasn’t sent to death row. Yet Troy Davis (a black man, 21 at the time of the crime) was executed this last September for killing one cop. Despite much new evidence pointing to his innocence. And it’s not really the “law of the land”. It’s the law of a few of our states. We as a country can’t even agree on if this is cruel and unusual punishment. We as humans aren’t perfect and therefore neither is our justice system. The possibility and FACT that we can and HAVE executed innocent people should be reason enough to get rid of this archaic form of punishment. The only use the death penalty serves is that is a bargaining chip with defendants to get them the plea. However, it also causes issues with extradition with countries that do not use the death penalty. Killing a killer doesn’t bring back the dead. And keeping them behind bars for the rest of their life, still ensures that they won’t hurt anyone every again. And personally, I felt as a Christian (as again for MYSELF) that being pro-life and pro-death penalty were incompatible with each other. I’m glad I don’t have that conflict anymore.

    • Erica I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this subject. I’m really interested in your point of view. I know your opinions are always well thought out and researched and I’d truly love to hear more of what you have to say.

      However, in your “toned down” version ;) I feel like you share quite a few great points. I guess I never realized how incredibly inconsistent it is. And, if innocent people are being killed then, you are right, it must be stopped.

      Here is my ever so gentle push back (and not even really push back – just where my gut clenches when I think about it) about the debate of being pro life and then also pro death penalty. Because I get COMPLETELY advocating for these innocent babies. That makes perfect sense to me. But, if there is someone like Gary Ridgeway, for example, who has mercilessly killed countless women – why do I want to advocate for him the same way I’d advocate for a truly innocent life?

      Just something I think about.

  7. I am Pro-Life period – I do not believe in abortion or the death penalty. I understand all the arguments, and can make just as many arguments both ways actually. Bottom-line, taking a life is taking a life. I do not judge others for their beliefs, this is my belief and it gives me peace because it it is absolute.

  8. I am against the death penalty and I’m a Christian. Your question for a person like myself is “how does one get justice”? My answer is: What is justice? The bad person “getting their own”? That’s not something we can count on in this life. Justice for me is the long (and usually painful) journey that God leads you on to find the ever freeing power of forgiveness within yourself. To be revolutionized by God’s love and grace in your own life enough to extend that to someone that’s wronged you. Then you are no longer captive to the desire to seek revenge or get even or demand “justice”. Only then can you truly say, God, it’s in your court. Do I do this perfectly? Hell no. Do I believe it’s the right answer? Yes.

    • LK, although it sort of pains me to completely accept it, you are 100% correct. I feel like it is so much easier for me to forgive when I see someone “get theirs”. I guess, per usual, God and I have some work to do…


  9. Tiffany,

    I have a question that I hope doesn’t come off flippant or naive. I certainly don’t offer this question in the spirit of the former, but I do realize it may fall completely in the category of the latter. But, how does the fact that Jesus was a victim of the death penalty affect your struggle with the topic?

    Do you feel that it was ordained by God to eventually happen and somehow fit into the belief that he died for our sins, so therefore it was part of the plan from the beginning? Or do you feel that if he’d lived well past thirty-three that he’d have done even more good for mankind?

    Yes, Jesus died for something that we’d never put someone to death for now in our society (in a sense), so it’s not apples to apples, but I think one would have to concede that the argument doesn’t ring hollow if you consider that death penalties are always a product of the societies that have them. In other words, America has a death penalty (even for non-murders like treason and spying) that isn’t consistently applied, so even that fact makes us less removed than we think from ancient Rome when it comes to what we’ll kill for as a society.

    For the sake of disclosure, I am not a believer in the death penalty as any sort of deterrent at all. Criminals don’t look at the fact that someone else got killed for a crime because most criminals don’t think they’ll ever be caught. Therefore, why worry about or factor in something that isn’t an eventuality? Essentially their ethos is ‘sucks for that guy, he was stupid getting caught in the first place.’

    But, I also agree with your emotional response to someone you know being killed; I’d want them dead too, and very painfully I might add. But this is why we have laws in society. Laws can not be made from a place of emotional sorrow, anger and contempt. I believe the only use for the death penalty is punitive. It’s meant to punish the individual ONLY. It’s meant to put a crazy dog down. And I can never shake the feeling that no matter what we state as a society in trying to give the act of killing someone some grander meaning, in the end it’s just a punitive act. If the government admitted that, maybe I could have some peace about the subject, but I don’t know how.

    • Brobinso
      wow. I’ve mulled this comment over for days. Seriously. Days. I just could not believe that there was a side of this argument I had never. even. thought of.

      Your question comes off neither flippant OR naive. It actually comes off pretty damn deep and intelligent.

      Jesus was a victim of the death penalty and yet that connection never ever met in my brain.

      Thank you for bringing this point up.

      Also “Laws can not be made from a place of emotional sorrow, anger and contempt” – I hate how right you are in that point. I’m a girl. A fair amount of my decisions are emotionally fueled. So, when I feel something that hurts I use that emotion to fuel what I want to do about it. However, I guess it is a great thing that the laws do not follow my emotional path. We might all be screwed.

  10. Another thought: I want the person that has done wrong to understand they have done wrong, feel the crippling weight of their wrong doing and then live with it forever. Death is too easy an escape. If they are put to death still delusional, where is the justice? They just got their dirt nap sooner rather than later.

    • LK another amazing point. This is something I can get behind 100%. It fuels my need for justice (even though in the previous comment we discussed that the need for justice is something God might have his work cut out for him in me) and I don’t feel like I’m an advocate for murder.

      I actually feel really at peace with this resolution. Thank you.

  11. Well, based on the commandment, “Thou shall not kill” it seems pretty clear that no one should do it. We live in a world of gray areas – is killing someone in self-defense OK, a soldier or terrorist from an opposing side, a murderer? We are forced to navigate a gray world and frankly, with all due respect to the Bible, people kill every day for what they believe are the “right” reasons. Some of these people are insane, some are scared, some are religious zealots, some are heads of state, all probably feel justified & righteous. I’m sure Assad is feeling quite righteous as he fires heavy artillery at defenseless countrymen. I imagine a variety of Texas Govenors felt content sending dozensof people to be executed, even though a handful were innocent of the crimes they were convicted of. My feeling is that it’s best not to kill anyone if you can help it & if you do kill someone, you better be able to live with it. I guess that’s more of an individual’s stand point, but if you aren’t willing to pull the trigger yourself, you have no business telling someone else they should – because you won’t be living with it, they will.

    • Kris
      “but if you aren’t willing to pull the trigger yourself, you have no business telling someone else they should – because you won’t be living with it, they will.”
      Ugh. That hit me right in the gut. Because I’m not willing to pull the trigger. I’m just on the fence as to whether or not I want to advocate for someone else to do it. So, I guess there is my answer…

  12. I really love that you posted about this topic. I recently switched from being pro-death penalty to the procedural abolitionist stance (i.e., I think it was mandated in the Old Testament for a good reason, but I do not believe it should be practiced today because of the way it is practiced). It took a lot of thought, discussion with my wife, and I actually recently wrote a small research paper on it here:

    The tipping point for me was the discovery of inherent racism in the system of the capital punishment in America and the amount of people that would have been exonerated based on DNA evidence after-the-fact. The one question I faced was this: can we, as Christians (or otherwise) approve of a system that allows even ONE innocent person to die? I don’t think so.

    Also, although we typically think of the government being the “system” that carries out capital punishment, we must also remember our government is made up of individuals. In reality, when we approve of the “government” to carry out capital punishment, we are asking REAL people (3 or 4 or 5 actual individuals) to kill another person. If I am not willing to kill the person myself, I should not be willing to ask someone else to do it for me.

  13. i oppose the death penalty BECAUSE of my belief in Grace, and my very human need for ‘payback’

    if the killer is Forgiven & put to death — where’s the physical suffering?

    the convicted killer should remain in this existence and suffer having freedom taken for the rest of natural life …
    yeah, i know… i should be better than this … but, like i said, i have a very human need to see justice served … releasing the forgiven soul from the body is NOT my idea of justice served.

  14. I believe the death penalty doesn’t work on any level. It doesn’t deter crime. It doesn’t actually save the state a lot of money. It doesn’t provide restitution. It doesn’t allow for rehabilitation.
    In all honesty, we don’t kill prisoners to prevent them from repeating their crimes. Maximum-security prisons are really very secure, despite what the movies may portray. A prisoner serving life w/out possibility of parole may as well be dead when it comes to them getting a chance to repeat the crime. And when a prisoner is killed, they stop paying for their crime. Their crime has been paid for. Their punishment is over. Life in prison seems much harsher.
    There have also been cases where people who were on death row later had their sentences overturned due to human error. Not a LOT, but how many is enough? What’s an acceptable percentage? If a fatal error CAN be made, wouldn’t we be better off admitting that we humans are fallible and prone to mistakes, and therefore we don’t make a permanent decision to end someone’s life?
    In the Old Testament, God was intimately involved with the death penalty. For example, when a woman was accused of adultery, she was brought to the temple and given a cup of water with sand from the temple floor mixed in it. She drank it, and if she became sick, she was guilty. If she did not, then God intervened and kept her well, so was proved innocent. People who cite the Old Testament ought to remember that not only are we not under the law, our government does not have this type of litmus test with God’s direct involvement, and so it doesn’t really compare.

  15. This is great! I have regular debates with my sister-in-law, and this was the subject of our latest, such a coincidence!

    I am a very forth right and realistic person, and I think that man shouldn’t have the authority to decide when we die. I can’t play God and, as my pastor says, “You make a GREAT Carissa, you make a horrible God”. That’s not my role to play, which is how I view the decision to kill somebody, whether it be out of hate or out of justice. God says ALL sin is the same, there is no “little sin” or “small sin”, and if you are willing to sacrifice someones life for murder why not sentence a young man to death for theft of a vehicle? Life is not a baby tooth that can be replaced, it’s not a limb that you can use a prosthetic for, it’s someones life, once gone no man can ever hand that back to you, not even by sacrificing his own.

    Now my sister-in-law is an extremely emotional person, she feels that justice should always be served and if Dick decides to shoot Jane, Dick deserves to die.
    I can’t say my opinion will never change. As I grow and gain more experience and wisdom in life, I may be in Jane’s mothers or sisters shoes. If that happens I pray that I would have the strength to forgive..but I am after all not God, I am Carissa..

    Again, this was so awesome to come across. Thank you! I really look forward to reading through more of your blogs.

  16. My sister in law, Carissa, had me read this as I am Pro death penalty as it gets! Great article, however the statement Frequently I ask myself, what gives us the right to play judge and juror with someone’s life?” Goes both ways. Could you rephrase this to a murderer and say “What give us (the murderers) the right to play judge and juror with someone’s life? Because that’s EXACTLY what they are doing. A murderer decides to play God and take someone’s life. I understand that we aren’t to Play God, however Justice and Forgiveness Go hand in hand. For instance, lets say my son swore at me, or ran into oncoming traffic when I told him not to. Of course I would forgive him, but there would ALWAYS be consequences for his actions. Be it the death penalty for a murderer or someone who steals from a bank, there are and always will be consequences. I think every person at some point or another, has thought about killing someone. That neighbor that’s so cold hearted, the cheating spouse ect… But how come we ALL haven’t murdered someone? Because we not that the consequence is High, it can and most likely would be the death penalty. We know that if we are speeding we might get a $200 ticket, but it we murdered someone, that’s a whole new level of consequence. Yes, God has the utlimate authority, but we as people, based on our rolls have authority too. As a mom, I have the authority to spank my son if he does something inapropriate or dangerous, just as People of the law have the authority to set boundaries and consequences for unnacceptable actions such as murder.
    I think murder is, of course, a case by case situation, not saying that the death penalty is a one size fits all, but I fully support it.

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